Ellicott City teen-ager guilty of peer's killing

Cyanide poisoning brings 1st-degree murder verdict

May 18, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg and Laura Cadiz | Lisa Goldberg and Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

An Ellicott City teen-ager who spent several months researching the best way to kill before spiking his best friend's soda with cyanide was convicted yesterday of first-degree murder.

The Howard County jury deliberated for less than three hours before returning the guilty verdict. Jurors apparently rejected a defense argument that Ryan T. Furlough, 19, was so depressed and so heavily medicated that he could not have been thinking rationally when he slipped cyanide into a soda can last year and offered it to 17-year-old Benjamin Vassiliev.

"Depression does not justify murder, and the jury demonstrated common sense in coming to that conclusion," Howard State's Attorney Timothy J. McCrone said after the verdict.

But Furlough's mother - who said she loved Vassiliev "like a son" - said she worries about the message the verdict sends about mental illness and about physicians' decisions to give high doses of controversial anti-depressants to youths.

"Please, please re-evaluate who you're taking your children to - what they're doing and what they're prescribing - because your children are at risk," Susan Furlough said.

As the verdict was read yesterday afternoon, the courtroom, packed with Vassiliev's friends and family, was still and silent. Furlough stood motionless, his face holding the same grim expression it's had through much of the trial.

Later, Vassiliev's father thanked jurors for "giving justice to Benjamin."

"There is no closure, but this at least gives a little bit of closure to the legal part of this nightmare," a red-eyed Walter Vassiliev said, his voice shaking. "This is a very emotional time. I miss Ben ... . This never should have happened."

Furlough faces a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole. His sentencing is scheduled for July 20.

Through four days of testimony last week, the case offered its share of drama - including an hours-long confession with tales of neglected friendships and frequent thoughts of suicide.

Furlough and Vassiliev, seniors at Centennial High School at the time of the killing in January 2003, were friends for years. But while Vassiliev thrived, earning lead roles in school plays and expanding his circle of friends, Furlough struggled with school and social interactions, witnesses testified.

Furlough became more and more isolated, according to testimony. Irked that Vassiliev had stopped giving him presents for birthdays and holidays and worried and upset that his friend had stopped caring, he told investigators that he began to plan his friend's death - as well as his own suicide.

He began researching poisons in the fall of 2002, he said, and searched for the simplest method that was sure to work. After his Internet order of cyanide arrived at his home in the 3500 block of Rhode Valley Trail on Dec. 11 of that year, he spiked a water bottle with cyanide and offered it to his friend to drink after chemistry class. But it was too bitter and Vassiliev spit the liquid out, he told investigators.

A few weeks later, on Jan. 3, 2003, the teen-agers were playing video games in the Furloughs' basement when Ryan Furlough, who had secreted a vial of the poison under the couch, put some in a Vanilla Coke can and offered it to Vassiliev, according to his statement to investigators. Vassiliev died five days later.

When questioned by authorities searching for the cause of Vassiliev's distress, Furlough remained silent, witnesses said. A doctor who treated Vassiliev testified that the teen-ager could have been saved if he had known about the cyanide poisoning.

"The evidence shows that the defendant planned, he deliberated, he made choices at every step of the way - choices that led to Jan. 3, 2003, and his choice to poison and kill Ben," prosecutor Mary Murphy said during her closing argument. She noted that Furlough had ample opportunity to commit suicide in the hours after the poisoning but did not do so.

Defense

But defense attorneys argued that Furlough was living in a "dark and desperate world" and could not possibly have deliberated over his decision. His mental state worsened during his high school years, and his psychiatrist's answer was to increase his dosage of Effexor, an anti-depressant recently under international scrutiny for its side effects in teen-agers, Susan Furlough told jurors. In the months before the killing, he was distant, aggressive and "flat," she said.

Defense attorney Joseph Murtha noted that the drug and its potential side effects, including hostility and suicidal thoughts, have been the subject of a recent Food and Drug Administration warning.

"There is no doubt that you are going to hold Ryan Furlough accountable" for Vassiliev's death, Murtha told jurors yesterday. "But it's important for you to recognize something happened to Ryan Furlough that altered his ability to appreciate his own actions."

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